British and Irish Lions Rugby 2013: Pre 6 Nations Squad Outlook
There are now less than five months until the British and Irish Lions board their flight to Hong Kong, and begin the 2013 tour of Australia.
The coaching team has been named and selection meetings have taken place. If players are to make the plane, they need to start staking their claims now, if they have not done so already.
Injuries are beginning to take their toll and these injuries have thrown selection wide open.
In this article, we will discuss injuries, form, the coaching team and finally the potential captains.
The Coaching Staff
Head Coach: Warren Gatland
Attack Coach: Rob Howley
Howley is clearly someone whose abilities Gatland has great faith in. He was the obvious candidate for the position as both England's Mike Catt and Ireland's Les Kiss are relatively unproven, while Scotland's coaching staff is going through a period of change. I believe Gatland could have been bolder, and approached Leinster's Joe Schmidt, especially as he has a less strenuous workload than many would've expected.
Scrum Coach: Graham Rowntree
Hugely respected all over Britain and Ireland, he was streets ahead of his rivals for the position. He coaches the strongest scrum in the Northern Hemisphere, has great pedigree as a scrum technician and has previously worked with the Lions in 2009.
Defence Coach: Andy Farrell
Many assumed Shaun Edwards was a shoe-in for the job given his history with Gatland and many were shocked at his admission. Gatland made the bold choice in Farrell but a good one. He will bring a new dynamic to the team, a new outlook and new ideas. He has enough experience to be a success in the role and is a real up-and-comer in the sport
Strength and Conditioning Coach: Adam Beard
Hugely respected in the world of strength and conditioning world and a key member of the Welsh backroom staff, he has transformed the Welsh squad into a hugely physical unit.
Fitness Coach: Paul Stridgeon
A great character who will play roles outside his remit of fitness coach. England players swear by him and say he is a great character who adds hugely to a touring party.
Previous Selection: Leigh Halfpenny, Rob Kearney, Ben Foden
In my previous selections, I went for three full-back as all three were capable of playing on the wing, and all three were too good to leave out.
Recent events have thrown a spanner in the works, as Foden has lost his place in not only the England side, but the match-day squad.
Alex Goode made a huge impact in the November Internationals, and his confidence has soared since then. England love his ability to act as an alternative to Owen Farrell at first receiver. Farrell struggles at times to set his outside backs away, and Goode helps offset this lack of creativity in the England back-line.
If Farrell's form with the boot continues, then Goode may travel to compliment his young teammate.
Mike Brown is the form full-back in the English club game but is shunted to the wing for England. This will harm his chances for selection as there are better alternatives on the wing.
Stuart Hogg was a real bright spark for Scotland last season but is suffering from a sophomore slump. He will need a big Six Nations to push himself into contention.
Lee Byrne has an outside shot to travel given his great form for Clermont, but the manner he was cast off by Gatland at Wales points to him having no more than an outside chance of touring.
Tourists: Halfpenny, Kearney, Goode
Previous selection: Tommy Bowe, George North, Tim Visser
Bowe's recent injury has thrown a spanner in the works as he was viewed by many as a certainty to tour and a candidate for the test team. Now, he'll need to prove himself all over again on his return.
His injury opens the door to the host of players jostling for a spot on the plane.
Christ Ashton's form hasn't been great but he is one of the proven International finishers still in the mix. A couple of big games in the Six Nations might be enough to offset his poor club form.
George North and Alex Cuthbert have the advantage of being known commodities for both Gatland and Howley. Their club form hasn't been great but that is down to playing in weak sides rather than their own shortcomings.
Eli Walker has burst into the spotlight in recent months, and is unlucky to find himself behind Cuthbert and North for Wales. He lacks the size of the aforementioned duo but has pace to burn and the ability to step off either foot at high speed. Unless he can force his way into the Welsh side, he is unlikely to tour.
Scotland have a couple of wingers making their Six Nations debut's this weekend but neither lack in experience and both have a nose for the try-line.
Sean Maitland has a great underage record with New Zealand, and was top try scorer in the Super Rugby Championship back in 2011. He could make a late charge for selection if he can hit the ground running.
On the opposite flank to him is Tim Visser, three times top scorer in the Pro 12. He has the pace and power to translate his club form into tries at the highest level. Gatland will be paying close attention to how himself and Maitland adjust this spring.
Ireland's young wingers offer an alternative to the power game of the majority of the players on this list. Neither Simon Zebo or Craig Gilroy are likely to run over defenders but they have the pace and guile that has seen them cause carnage for both Munster and Ulster in domestic and European rugby.
My esteemed colleague here at B/R Jeff Cheshire is much more versed in Southern Hemisphere rugby and believes the Wallabies have more experience in dealing with big, strong wingers and thus I believe the Lions may be best served picking contrasting wingers on each flank which may play into the hands of Gilroy, Walker, Maitland and Zebo.
Not considered due to injury: Bowe (mid-March).
Tourists: North, Visser, Cuthbert, Zebo
Previous Selection: Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Brian O'Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi
No new names have really made a push for inclusion but there remains a degree of uncertainty over who will make the final squad.
Jamie Roberts will tour if he remains injury free but that is always a big if. Galtand will be lighting candles to ensure the big centre remains healthy.
Brian O'Driscoll is being linked with the captaincy but has to focus on getting back to full strength first. His return from injury ended abruptly when he limped off against Llanelli but that appears to have been a precaution as he was back the following week to try help Leinster qualify for the Knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
Losing the Ireland captaincy, might be the push he needs to reach top form again.
Manu Tuilagi has been been in great form this season and will hope to carry this form into the Six Nations. At his best, he is unplayable but doubts still linger about his all-round game.
Jonathan Davies has grown into a real leader at Llanelli this season despite their troubles. A player who steps up when the chips are low is exactly the type of player the Lions need.
Brad Barritt has had a fine season, converting many of his doubters into fans. He remains a rock in defence but still needs to add to his attacking game. His selection will likely hinge on how Gatland intends to shape the back-line.
He is likely the only player outside the squad at the moment who may alter the final selection
Tourists: Davies, Tuilagi, Roberts, O'Driscoll
Previous Selection: Jonathan Sexton, Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar
The first name on the Lions team-sheet this season will be Jonny Sexton. At present, he is head and shoulders above his rivals. A strong Six Nations will seal his role as Lions Out-half.
Rhys Priestland shouldn't be back from injury to have any real impact so the fight is on to see who will serve as backup.
Owen Farrell did his chances no harm with near perfect kicking displays against Racing Metro and Edinburgh. He is unerring from the tee and strong defensively but struggles to unleash the backs. He will likely tour and play a role coming off the bench to close games.
Toby Flood has run the ball well but has struggled off the tee. He'll need to find his kicking boots if he is to tour.
In Wales, there was huge debate over who would replace Priestland. They eventually went with the unproven but talented Biggar ahead of the proven, but flawed James Hook. His all-around game, if he can step up to international rugby, could be too much to ignore but he will need to take advantage of the chance he has been given and not see this turn into another false dawn.
Scotland have gone with Ruaridh Jackson at 10 for the Six Nations opener but there are still doubts over who is the best man for the job. Greig Laidlaw, Duncan Weir and Tom Heathcote could all see game time if Jackson doesn't work out.
With Sexton so far ahead of his rivals, and Goode able to cover 10, the Lions may ultimately travel with two out-halves to Australia.
Not considered due to injury: Rhys Priestland (out for the season).
Tourist: Sexton, Farrell
Previous Selection: Mike Phillips, Conor Murray, Ben Youngs
There a number of reasons for players to move to France, most notably the cash, but the move has done nothing for Mike Phillips' game. Rob Howley has alluded to how the style of play in France is having a negative impact on his game.
That, and the little I have seen of Phillips this season, has led me to doubt his suitability to tour. He seems sluggish, overweight and unmotivated. Can he turn it around in the coming months?
His standing has not been helped by the form of those vying for his position.
Danny Care and Ben Youngs have been in flying form for their respective sides, adding a real sparkle to their back-lines. Youngs has won the start for England but both will play a huge role in the coming months. Care will be hoping that he can make an impact off the bench, earning a few starts in the process.
Conor Murray has pulled away from Eoin Reddan in the race for the Ireland shirt and has really stepped up into a leadership role for Munster. He would bring a presence to the role that Care and Youngs lack and is probably slightly ahead of Phillips as things stand.
Their matchup this weekend will be huge for both players.
Henry Pyrgos was a revelation for Scotland in November but has lost out as Greig Laidlaw moves inside from 10. If Laidlaw has a good Six Nations in front of a strong Scottish pack, his ability to cover 10 could help further his case.
Tourists: Youngs, Care, Murray
Previous Selection: Jamie Heaslip, David Denton
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip may not have become the player many predicted back in 2009, but he has reached a semblance of his old form in recent months. His appointment as Irish captain shows that he is a hugely respected leader and this combined with his return to form and rivals loss of form—all points towards him being selected.
Wales's Toby Faletau is another who many predict will have a bright future but uncertainty over his future may have led to his current loss of form. He will be a key man for Wales in the coming months so they, and the Lions, will be hoping he finds his form soon.
The challenges are coming thick and fast from a number of players. Nick Easter has been discarded by England but is the in-form 8 in Europe at the moment and will hold out hope for a call. His game would suit the hard pitches in Australia, and he would provide some maturity and leadership to what will be an young squad.
Ben Morgan and Scott Waldrom are fighting it out for the right to the England shirt and whoever wins that fight will be keen to reach for even greater heights. Morgan would be my tip for England but the Lions may come too soon.
Scotland's David Denton is a real highlight reel player. He has pace and power that his rivals lack, routinely smashing players aside in attack and defence. He is also a decent line-out option but questions remain about his overall work-rate. Scotland have drafted Johnnie Beattie who's hit a real purple patch in a good Montpellier side. He has taken Denton's Scotland jersey and could make a late push for the Lions.
Tourists: Heaslip, Faletau
Previous Selection: Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Stephen Ferris, Chris Robshaw
This position will raise the most debate among fans. There are a host of stars battling it out for the four or five spots on the plane.
As previously discussed, the breakdown will be a key battleground this summer and finding some form openside's to challenge the mighty David Pocock.
Sam Warburton was seen by many as a certainty to tour and a leading candidate to captain the side. His star has dimmed in the last 12 months but he is still a very strong candidate. He went toe-to-toe with David Pocock and Richie McCaw in November and more than held his own.
He will have to watch his back though as Justin Tipuric is flying at present. Rob Howley even considered the possibility of switching Warburton to the blindside to accommodate the rising star.
Wales' second-row injury list meant Howley drafted Aaron Shingler and his line-out presence into the test team, leaving Tipuric consigned to the bench.
There is also the outside chance that Dan Lydiate finds his feet quicker than expected and makes a late push to travel.
Ireland's Stephen Ferris is another player who was in flying form last season but the injury curse has struck again, leading some to doubt if he will come back as strong as before. He feels like he can, and he has proved the doubters wrong before.
He will take inspiration from Sean O'Brien who came back from hip surgery and quickly returned to his barnstorming best. Peter O'Mahony is another who could make a late push but he would probably have to rely on injury to make the plane.
Another who is on the road to recovery is the dynamic Tom Croft. A favourite of the Sky Sports gang, I doubt whether his all-round game is good enough compared to his rivals. He is easing himself back after a serious neck injury and will take time to find form.
He will struggle to break into an England backrow that is bursting at the seams. Chris Robshaw is an inspirational figure and this, combined with his graft and skill, could help him fill a role in the squad. Alongside him, there is the likes of Tom Woods, Calum Clark and Tom Johnson.
Johnson would appear the least likely given his limitations size-wise. Clark is just back after a lengthy suspension and will need to prove he has his temper in check. Woods is a player who doesn't get much credit but does mountains of unseen work.
Kelly Brown is having a huge season for Saracens and has just been named the Scottish captain. Gatland will appreciate his work-rate and ability at the breakdown.
There is also the option that Gatland will go for with four flankers given the problems at lock and rely on the versatility of the four flankers chosen.
Not considered due to injury: Dan Lydiate (March); Stephen Ferris (March); Calum Clark (March); Ross Rennie (uncertain).
Tourists: O'Brien, Tipuric, Warburton, Robshaw
Previous Selection: Courtney Lawes, Donnacha Ryan, Richie Gray, Luke Charteris, Joe Launchbury
No position has seen so many candidates come and go in the last few months as the position of lock, as a host of players have made their mark while others have struggled with form and injury.
Wales have huge injury issues in the position which could leave the door open for a number of players.
A young man to keep an eye on this spring is James King. Born in Australia but raised in Wales, he has made the most of the opportunity granted to him by injuries and could make a late push to tour as a "dirt-tracker."
Andrew Coombs beat him to selection for the Ireland game but King is the better long-term prospect. Ian Evans has been rushed back from injury to partner Coombs. The shortage of lock options could see him with a chance of touring.
England appeared to have unearthed a gem a few years back when Courtney Lawes burst onto the scene. Loss of form and a string of injuries, find him on the fringes of the England team. He could yet make a push for selection if he can get any game-time off the bench.
His position as man on the rise has been taken by Joe Launchbury. Dynamic in the loose and dependable in the tight, he continues to grow and could be too hard to ignore.
Geoff Parling is no more than a "dirt-tracker" for me but he has the potential to be a great tourist. He is charged with calling the England line-out and is fine operator. He would be a solid, if unspectacular choice.
Richie Gray is the only sure thing at present. Sale's struggle has affected his form but he is still showing enough to make the plane and probably start. His partner Jim Hamilton is a beast of a man and could take advantage of the growing injury list.
Paul O'Connell is out indefinitely and has ruled himself out of contention but that could change depending how his return goes. His role as leader at both Munster and Ireland has been filled with aplomb by Donnacha Ryan, who on current form has to tour.
Nathan Hines and Donnacha O'Callaghan are two veterans who could yet make the plane. Both remain in good form and wouldn't let the Lions down.
Not considered due to injury: Alun Wyn-Jones (March); Luke Charteris (out for season); Paul O'Connell (April); Bradley Davies (April).
Tourists: Ryan, Gray, Launchbury, Evans, Parling
Previous Selection: Andrew Sheridan, Cian Healy, Alex Corbisiero
Another key battleground this summer be the scrum, as I alluded to in my previous article. The makeup of the props chosen could make or break the three-game series.
At loose-head, there are a number of strong candidates, all of whom offer different strengths and weaknesses.
Gethin Jenkins has lost his way in France and will have to rely on a strong showing Six Nations to earn his spot on the plane.
Andrew Sheridan, long forgotten by England, is currently keeping him out of a Toulon team destroying opponents in the tight. Given his previous match with Australia, he could bring a real fear factor to the touring squad.
In Ireland, Cian Healy is being pushed all the way by Munster's David Kilcoyne. He lacks Healy's dynamism but is much more destructive in the scrum. Healy has really taken the challenge on the chin and come out fighting. He has been at his rampaging best in recent weeks and, after Jenkins, is the most well-rounded loose-head.
Joe Marler and Alex Corbisiero are battling it out for the England shirt and either could make the squad. Corbisiero is the better scrummager but will miss England's first game and possibly the rest of the season. Marler is a highly combustible character and his disciplinary history may count against him. If the scrum is to be a key battleground, the Lions can't afford to go a man down.
Ryan Grant is a name most won't know but he is beginning to make a name for himself in propping circles. If he can continue his rise, he may force his way into the mix.
Tourists: Healy, Sheridan, Jenkins
Previous Selection: Adam Jones, Dan Cole
If the scrum is to be a means of attack, Gatland and Rowntree will need to pick tight-heads who will anchor this attacking scrum.
Adam Jones has been in great form since his return from injury. Gatland and Rowntree have both worked with him and hold him in high regard.
His likely fellow tight-head is England's Dan Cole. His all-round game has continued to grow, and his reputation is beginning to precede him.
A combination of this duo would strike fear into most sides with Cole likely to come off the bench and replace Jones who is not renowned for having an 80 minute game.
There are a few potential challengers but none that really jump off the page.
Mike Ross is solid and dependable but he is not of the quality of the aforementioned tight-heads.
Euan Murray on his day was a world-class prop but his religious beliefs continue to be held against him. In such a short tour window, a player missing one day a week of training will surely rule him out.
Tourists: Cole, Jones
Previous Selection: Rory Best, Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs
Hooker is another position which has two, if not three spots, still totally up for grabs as no player has separated from the pack.
Richard Hibbard is the one who has had the biggest impact in recent weeks, leading some to call him the best hooker in Europe. I wouldn't go that far yet but he has been impressive. Injury has struck though and this gives Matthew Rees and maybe Ken Owens a chance to keep him in the stands.
Ross Ford is in danger of falling off the pace and will hope the arrival of a new coaching staff will revitalise his game. Dougie Hall has taken his place in the starting team so he has a long road back.
Rory Best was seen by many as the Irish captain in waiting but was usurped by Jamie Heaslip. This may be because he is no longer a certainty to start. He has returned from injury just in time to meet the challenge of Richard Strauss head-on.
Strauss' injury gives Best a chance to reassert his dominance. For Strauss, it means he probably has little chance of touring with no International or Heineken Cup rugby to show his credentials at the highest level.
In England, they have a battle of their own over the hooker shirt. Dylan Hartley's disciplinary issues gave Tom Youngs a chance during November, and Youngs more than stepped up to the mark. The shirt is now his to lose, and unless he puts a foot wrong, Hartley may miss out on the Lions. Youngs' all-round game has much more upside, and I have never been enamored with Hartley and his antics.
Tourists: Hibbard, Best, Youngs
Who Will Lead the Lions?
The person chosen to lead the Lions this summer will be bestowed with one of the highest honours in the game. He will join a short list that contains some of the greatest names in the European game. Captaining a winning side would ensure his name goes down in history alongside the likes of Willie John McBride and Martin Johnson.
The role is about more than just leading the side on the pitch. The captain will play a role in keeping the 20 players not chosen for the Test side happy and motivated. He will have to keep the players energised and motivated over the course of a long Tour away from friends and family. And then of course, there is the significant media exposure. Gatland has said his captain will have to earn his place in the test side so whoever is chosen will have a busy couple of months.
His previous tour as captain ended in disaster at the hands of Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu so he would jump at the chance to lead the Lions once again. He has suffered with injuries this season and recently lost the Irish captains' armband.
A proven leader, he exudes confidence and is a savvy media operator. But he is not a certainty to tour, and even less likely to start. With Jon Davies likely to start at 13, O'Driscoll may be better served focusing on his game. He is the type of player who will lead even if he's not captain so he will still play a leadership role.
The man chosen to replace O'Driscoll for Ireland has now pushed himself into contention for the Lions. Fans question his leadership qualities but behind closed doors, Heaslip is hugely respected as both an individual and a leader.
His tendency to play up to the media and twitter ramblings play into this negative image. Look him up on Google, and the first three things that pop up are: Twitter, girlfriend and Restaurant. Not what you expect from a rugby player. He says he is a man reborn this season and given the lack of an Irishman on the coaching staff, he may be chosen to help balance the scales.
Bookies had Warburton as odds-on favourite to lead to Lions as soon as the 2011 World Cup ended. His inspirational leadership and dedication to the task at hand was seen as a huge reason in the strong Welsh showing. Since then, form and injury have seen his star dim but he is still most peoples' favourite for the job.
My only issue would be if the captaincy would take away from his performance. His battle with Pocock could decide the series. Maybe he would be best served focusing solely on that job or maybe the captaincy inspires his game to greater heights. Gatland will know better than anyone so the right decision will be made either way, and I suspect he will be the man chosen to lead the Lions.
An inspirational figure at both Harlequins and England, he is a born leader. Born in another era, he would probably find himself leading men into battle, and he often finishes games looking like he's been to war. He was chosen to lead England despite having only 53 minutes of Test rugby to his name.
His leadership qualities are not in doubt, but his decision making is. In key moments of two successive November internationals, he made the wrong call; the second time appearing to be influenced by the media's reaction to his first mistake. Teething problems are sure to arise with such an inexperienced leader, and he will learn. There is also the issue that he plays in one of the most hotly-contested positions. He may be viewed as captain of the Lion's "dirt-trackers."